Research team uses NSF funds to gain entrepreneurial experience

Faculty members in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M University work diligently to prepare students for the engineering profession. The department strives to ensure students are afforded world-class learning opportunities in the classroom and research laboratories. Professors use funded opportunities to provide students real world experiences that will prepare them to answer the challenges of the future.

Dr. Andrea Strzelec, assistant professor in the department, is the principle investigator for a National Science Foundation-funded, Innovation Corps (I-Corps™) activity, which included a seven week business boot camp.

I-Corps is a program designed to challenge scientist, engineers and students to extend their focus beyond the laboratory in an effort to broaden the potential impact of their research projects. Research being conducted in the Combustion and Reaction Characterization Laboratory, which is directed by Strzelec, seeks to develop an innovative after treatment approach for engine exhaust.

“The emissions from engines are known to be detrimental to both the environment and human health,” Strzelec said. “Because of this, the Environmental Protection Agency has implemented regulations on emissions from vehicles such as cars and trucks.”

To meet the regulations, the industry has developed five major types of aftertreatment devices. These devices are installed in the exhaust system and serve the purpose of lowering greenhouse gas emissions associated with the burning of petroleum products.

Strzelec’s team identified its research problem in that there are many companies who do not have the infrastructure or budget to create the laboratory environment necessary for evaluating aftertreatment devices. The team developed a versatile microreactor system capable of investigating and characterizing catalytic and non-catalytic heterogeneous reactions. The Portable Characterization Microreactor was designed such that fundamental catalytic activity and selectivity can be examined. The results could provide key knowledge required to develop new materials and processes for emissions catalysts.

Once the microreactor was built and validated, the team had to prove the products usability to industry professionals.

“We leaned heavily on the 33 years of experience our industry mentor Dr. R.J. Blint provided us for this aspect of the project,” said mechanical engineering student Carleton Vangsness. “Dr. Blint worked for GM facilitating relationships between the OEM and suppliers, so he gave us an inside perspective on how to structure our proposal language so that automotive manufactures could envision our product in the way we did.”

In order to accomplish the goals of the I-Corps program, Strzelec’s team conducted over 120 interviews with industry professionals and traveled nearly 13,000 miles. The team gained invaluable experience and hopes to continue the research project to develop a more comprehensive functional apparatus for mass production.

“We still feel we have many hurdles to overcome before we are ready to launch a company,” Vangsness said. “However, the experience I have gained being a part of this project has no comparison.”